Stephen Kuusisto, Planet of the Blind
BY THE AGE of five, I've been in and out of hospitals. The muscles
around my eyes have
been cut and stitched as a means of cor-
recting my strabismus.
After the surgery I have bandages on my
eyes for several months,
and that is when I learn to hear. I spend
whole afternoons listening.
I can hear the wooden gears of the
railroad clock that
hangs on the far wall.
operation has made me appear less cross-eyed,
though the eyes move
independently, and in their separate
depths of color they
afford me nothing like depth perception or
balance. By now my
glasses are extremely thick. They allow me
to make use of my
delicate residual vision, but they're cumber-
some and painful to
wear, and the target of teasing by other
first day of school the teacher, Mrs. Edinger, posts a
photograph above the
blackboard; two chubby infants swaddled
in diapers stare down
on the class. Those who are caught whis-
pering will have their
names appended under the babies' curled
is the Baby Board," says Mrs. Edinger, "and anyone who
talks out of turn
will have their name put here. Only babies talk
when they're supposed
to be quiet!"
enter the public school, I am without assistance.
Without "low vision"
specialists or special education standards, I
am without the benefits
of proper orientation and mobility train-
ing. There are no
braille lessons for me, no large print materials.
The air flashes like
quartz, and I see nothing of the arithmetic
lesson. My fingers
slide in all directions. I clasp and unclasp the
lid of my pencil box,
trace the scars on my desk. I pull at my
eyelids in an effort
to refine the mist.
ask a question, some nearly useless thing like how many
dogs are on the blackboard.
I turn to Janet, who sits next to me,
and whisper, "How
many dogs are there?"
Stephen talking!" cries the teacher, and there is the
staccato of chalk
in action. "Stephen's name goes on the Baby
I am swollen
shut, catch myself, sit straight in my chair as
laughter breaks around
an assistant I am forced to listen.
like a person telephoning in the dark.
like the ornithologist who unwraps bird bones from
EACH MORNING MRS.
Edinger begins the day with a Bible story.
Here come jawbones,
slings, infants floating in baskets, a lion 5
den, and a trapped
man. Now she recites frankincense and
myrrh, robes of gold,
a nativity star.
comes to me by repetition.
playground I lean against a wall, immured by the
strings of words that
have accumulated during the morning.
Around me my classmates
are playing a game loosely called Kill
the Germans-they race
through the November mire letting out
shrieks. There is
a great deal of arguing about who is dead.
Sometimes I lower
my head like a fullback and run right through
the classroom, I count imaginary frogs, butterflies,
the lessons without usable print or concrete
numbers. The world
is skewed according to the compensatory
through my head. I follow the teacher's words
and make a kind of
caged progress, trapped as I am in my own
Mrs. Edinger posts a photograph of astronauts above
orbit the earth," she says, "and you can only be
an astronaut if you
are very good at your lessons."
who finish their in-class assignments before the rest
will henceforth be
"astronauts"-permitted to orbit the class-
room and peer over
the shoulders of the others.
has just orbited the planet, sailing upright from
sunrise to sunset
within an hour. A television has been wheeled
into our classroom,
and I listen to Walter Cronkite, who is suffi-
ciently loud even
for the dead.
I press my nose to an impossible page, trying to read
some inscription in
the dust of damaged retinas, here comes a
kid to loom over me.
He is orbiting.
he murmurs, "get a little closer!" and he shoves my
nose into the paper
before passing down the row of desks.
playing alone, I pretend to be Walter Cronkite, shuf-
fling unreadable pages.
The attic is my television studio.
under the sloping eaves, and with rain on the roof for
accompaniment, I talk
to my audience.
IN SCHOOL THE printed
word scurries away from my one "reading
eye"-words in fact
seem to me like insects released from a box.
While the class reads
aloud, I watch the spirals of hypnotic light
that ripple across
my eyes when I move them from side to side. I
do not belong here.
My little body at this desk is something
uncanny-a thing that
belongs in the darkness and that has
been brought to daylight.
talk, answer questions, make others laugh. I'm interested
in everything and
tell the class that I can spell Tchaikovsky.
she of the Astronaut Board, becomes the first
saint in my life.
She takes it upon herself to help me read. After
school we sit at her
desk, and with my nose jammed into the
pages, we go over
the words. And though I'm squinting and
over each alphabetic squiggle, she has the
patience of an archaeologist,
one who dusts the microscopic
shards before putting
them away. With her, I hold my eye very
still and make out
later I learn from my mother that Mrs. Edinger is a black
woman and perhaps
the first person of African American heri-
tage to teach in this
local New Hampshire school. We are mu-
tual explorers as
we go over the hopeless print. She's noticed my
has figured out that I have a photographic
memory. This probably
contributes to her desire to see me
read--she knows I'll
retain the words that I've struggled so hard
of after-school time are spent before I can match the
class in reading.
I have to hold my book an inch from my eye
and try hard to hold
the hot, spasming muscle. The exhaustion
of this is like the
deep fatigue drivers feel after being too long on
the road. The ordinary
effort of reading is, for me, a whole-body
experience. My neck,
shoulders, and, finally, my lower back con-
tract with pain. The
legally blind know what it is to be old: even
before the third grade
I am hunched and shaking with effort,
always on the verge
of tears, seeing by approximation, craving a
solid sentence. Then
the words dissolve or run like ants. Never-
theless I find a lighted
room inside my head, a place for self-
affiliation. I am
not blind, am not the target of pranks.
my reading lesson, a boy I think of as a friend
steals my glasses
and my panic brings me alive like a tree filled
with birds: I navigate
with my hands.
Blindo, over here!"
along with several others, then they run.
with my arms straight following the sounds of sneak-
ers. I'm determined
not to cry: steel keys revolve and lock in my
brain. Then I trip
on a curb and cut my hands on a storm drain.
day I picture that boy clutching my glasses at a safe
distance and watching
me drift about. I learned early that with
my glasses I'm blind,
without them I'm a wild white face, a body
groping, the miner
who's come suddenly into the light.
particular afternoon I am instantly put on display.
Now, in one stroke,
I am a jellyfish, measureless and unwieldy.
More than thirty years
have passed since that moment, but I'm
by what it felt like to belong so thoroughly to
other people, to be,
in effect, their possession. There should be a
book of etiquette
for those who find themselves in the predica-
ment of the monster.
Robbed of my glasses, I was no longer an
impaired boy who'd
been barred from sports. Instead I was am-
he must have thrown the glasses to the ground and
run away. Probably
an adult was coming; I can't remember now.
BY THE THIRD grade,
I'm wearing glasses fitted with telescopes
and am promptly labeled
"Martian." My anxieties live like pilot
birds atop my shoulders.
I pull all the hair from my eyebrows.
Other kids call me
Magoo over and over again.
sixties, Mr. Magoo is the latest descendant in a long
line of comic blind
characters playing the role of the sighted
man. Valentin Hauy,
an eighteenth-century French educator
and the first great
benefactor of the blind, witnessed one such
spectacle in 1771.
A group of blind men were arranged in the
village square of
St. Ovide, all of them dressed like clowns, each
wearing a dunce's
cap. These are the people who unwittingly
who can't control their hands.
them in the village square, each carrying a musical
a horn, a hand organ. On their faces the
town magistrate had
placed large cardboard cut-out spectacles.
Placed before them
on a desk were lanterns and sheets of music
that the men made
burlesque attempts at reading by playing
with predictable results. The villagers found
this amusing enough
to keep the show going for several weeks.
When the musicians
could no longer make money, they returned
to their lives of
begging. But their concert gives Magoo a comic
In a magazine
advertisement for the Blue Cross/Blue Shield
health insurance companies,
"Mr. Magoo" is a bald little blind
man whose tightly
shut eyes look like question marks. There's no
attempt in any representation
of Magoo to cover his eyes with
advertisement Mr. Magoo is driving down a hill in an
antiquated car. He's
blissfully unaware that he's crossing the rail-
way tracks. He mutters
about the "potholes" as he drives across,
just ahead of an oncoming
train. Magoo is like Charlie Chaplin,
circles the edge of a precipice on roller skates.
His power resides in
his luck, which is angelic. His every arrival
is a miracle.
Magoo drives a car, America's television audience
experiences the same
comic frisson as Hauy's villagers who
laughed at the beggars
wearing cardboard spectacles. But the
blind are seldom depicted
as being more than this. They are
blind fools, or conversely,
they're suddenly cosmic.
ASHAMED OF MY telescopes,
I hide them in drawers and walk
about with my head
tipped slightly to the left to gain more
refraction from my
heavy prismatic glasses. I take to spending
hours in attics or
barns, places filled with tools and broken ma-
is full of particulars, a glass case in a provincial
museum. Here's a black
dancing slipper with glued crimson
feathers; a ballpoint
pen from the Marcellus Casket Company.
I'm nailed down with
curios. But even the nearest things are
evasive; objects buzz
as in early motion pictures. Even as I wish
to see, to pass for
one who sees, that sight is eluding me.
In a neighbor's
shed I stand at the dusty keys of an upright
piano and count how
many have lost their ivory--two black
keys are missing.
And mice or moths have long since feasted on
the purple felt that
lines the back of the keyboard. I hear wasps
and a hand mower, and somewhere far off a
radio tuned to a baseball
game. But I am absorbed in the colors
and odors of this
instrument, which looms over me like a wreck,
the hull that Robinson
Crusoe returned to. I am drawn by its
worn pedals, the pegs
and hammers, the cast iron frame, and the
sour metallic scent
of its dead strings.
my nose to everything. I look perpetually like a mendi-
cant on Ash Wednesday.
the skeleton of a catfish across the bridge of my glasses.
I go to
the woods and sit on the mossy ledge of a great stone.
As blue turns to black,
the sky is momentarily transparent. I am
skating there, tuming
my head sharply, intuiting the next place
to rest my forehead.
MY SISTER is a true
friend, a collector of shining oddities, a
woman's shoe containing
a daddy longlegs and a moth that she
has found in a dusty
corner of the garage.
the afternoon building a votive temple around this
For guards we have a stuffed lion, a flesh-
colored plastic figurine
of Tarzan, a Raggedy Ann doll wearing a
red skirt. I need
someone to bring me objects and say "Look at
this!" My sister doesn't
seem to notice that I have to place each
thing up against my
jumping eyes. She's oblivious to her
to Franz Kafka as a kid-a child whose
eyes can't look straight.
ago I came across a photograph of Kafka at the age
of five. The photo
shows that he had a wandering eye, or what
doctors call a "lazy
eye." Though he's trying to look at the cam-
era, he seems lost.
He's dressed like a circus ringmaster. Behind
him is an animal with
the head of a sheep, though its hindquar-
ters and tail suggest
something of the dog. It has a bridle and
saddle, as though
it's meant to be ridden. This is a photogra-
pher's studio creature,
something from the workshop of an odd
cobbler. Kafka looks
at home with the creature; his world is
routinely a place
of ill-defined animals, of things that are not
what they seem.
he sees blue smoke. Faces loom, adults are rising
from the vista like
sensate stones. These are the gorgeous mi-
rages pf not-seeing,
moments red and green and black as the
studios of Matisse.
The moments are seriocomic: a white horse
stands at the circus,
no, it's a bedsheet in the wind.
went to the circus. Under the great Barnum tent, the
lion tamer-Clyde Beatty
in a two-story iron cage-appears like
the Duke of Mantua,
fighting three leopards with a chair and
whip. All this I did
not see. What I did see was the pink floodlit
haze where that cage
stood, heard the crack of a whip, the roar
of the cats. The faces
of the children and adults who surrounded
me in the raised wooden
bleachers were lit as though their cot-
ton candy contained
glowworms. But beyond this, wherever I
looked, the concentration
of the colors flew apart, the kaleido-
scope circus fog of
Gypsy tints and shadows flooded me.
the face of my uncle, a heavy, simian, unshaven
man, one who was not
given to smiling. He studied the drama of
Clyde Beatty, his
expression as intense as that of the immigrant
who has sighted shore
at last. Around his head floated smoke
rings from his expensive
cigar. He told me at last that the cats
were lying down. The
crowd was wild. When I looked toward
the cage, I saw astral
lava, a pink hurricane of cigar-lit stage
lights, and then the
gold flash of what I took to be the whip.
to see, I watched appearances abound, and while the
animals were too far
away, the harlequin masks of family loomed
around me. Like the
boyish Kafka, I smiled.